WILDFIRESClimate-Fueled Wildfires Lead to Rethink on Fire Tactics

By Alistair Walsh

Published 22 August 2023

Climate change is making wildfires more frequent and more destructive, and long-time firefighting strategies are no longer working. Scientists are calling for a radical rethink of how we fight wildfires.

Across the planet, climate change is making wildfires so dangerous that long-time firefighting strategies are no longer working, prompting calls for a new way of thinking about blazes, say experts. 

Firefighters are suddenly being confronted with fires that don’t play by the rules anymore,” said David Bowman, a professor of pyrogeography and fire science at the University of Tasmania, who has been researching fire for four decades.

For instance, firefighters usually use calmer nighttime fire conditions when temperatures are cooler and wind dies down to consolidate and prepare for more intense daytime conditions. 

But now fires burn hot “through the night, they behave as if the night is day,” said Bowman, who is worried about what the Australian fire season, which kicks off in December, will hold, given searing temperatures across the globe so far this year.

In Canada, firefighters have reported such intense fires, that water dropped by aircraft is evaporating before it even hits the ground.

The Canadian fire season runs until October, but 2023 is already the worst one on record. Thousands of fires have burned an area the size of Greece — 10 times as much as last year. The fires have generated hundreds of millions of tons of CO2, roughly equivalent to what the Netherlands emits in a year. 

Climate Change Increasing Fire Risk?
There is no one cause of the fires the world is seeing from Maui to Greece to Canada. The reasons for wildfires are complex. Land use changes and poor forest management play a part in worsening fires.

But human-driven climate change is playing a role and is increasing fire risks in many parts of the world, according to Mojtaba Sadegh, an associate professor in civil engineering at Boise State University in the northwestern US state of Idaho. 

More hot days, drought and declining rainfall can exacerbate the severity of fires because soil is drier and parched vegetation makes perfect kindling. 

The dry, hot, windy conditions that are a recipe for large fires are getting more and more frequent in many regions,” Sadegh said. “Dryness leads to more hotness, hotness leads to more dryness.”

And more intense and larger fires generate so much heat, they are creating their own weather patterns, affecting wind direction and causing the fire to spread more quickly, as was the case with a massive blaze in the US state of Oregon in 2021.